Pick about any player out of the Sunderland squad, gather together a few fans for discussion, and almost certainly there will be debate questioning that player's quality. We can never agree on anything, and that's kind of what makes it fun. But perhaps there is one exception. I have yet to hear a bad word said about Bolo Zenden, either as a player or an influence within the squad, and I refuse to believe that is entirely due to the fact he looks a little bit like He-Man or that he can do copious amounts of physical exercise with nary a hair falling out of place. Zenden's pedigree is there for all to see, of course, and a career is not forged bouncing between clubs such as Liverpool, Barcelona, and Marseilles without some genuine quality in your locker. If there is any debate over Zenden, then it tends to be over just how much he has left in the tank, but latching onto Sessegnon's pass and gliding past Jaaskelainen in the Bolton goal on Saturday appears to have emphatically put an end to those debates for now. But with Bolo Zenden, that is only the very tip of the discussion.
Bolo arrived at Sunderland almost as an after-thought. The transfer window had long-since closed and Zenden had been passing the time working as an analyst for Sky Sports since his release from Marseilles that summer. It is perhaps therefore understandable that Zenden's first season at the Stadium of Light was largely unmemorable, except of course that fabulous volley against Tottenham. However, despite intermittent outings in the first team, there was little dissension from the fans when his contract was renewed for a second year.
Although Zenden arrived as a stop-gap free-agent signing to provide cover, there can be little to deny the fact that his influence around the club has slowly grown and the general consensus seems to be that the manager does not use him enough. Bruce himself commented similarly last weekend. It is a compelling argument, especially given the plethora of injuries we have suffered and the desperate lack of naturally left-footed players that has unbalanced the side for much of the season.
While Zenden was reminding us all that he is still capable of making telling contributions on the pitch, it is arguable that it is what he brings to the table off the pitch that is his real value. He is clearly a thinking footballer and student of the game. When BBC Radio Newcastle asked him for his post-match thoughts at the Reebok, he regaled them with a lengthy and intricate analysis of the game. The value of such insight knocking about inside the club from such an experienced, eloquent, and respected source can not possibly be underestimated.
But for me, without a shadow of a doubt, Zenden's importance to the club has increased exponentially over the last twelve months due to the club's commitment to lowering the age of the the squad. During the last year, we have seen experienced pros such as Lorik Cana, Andy Reid, Kenwyne Jones, and George McCartney replaced in the squad by relative rookies like David Meyler, Jack Colback, Ahmed Elmohamady, and Danny Welbeck. In the cut-throat world of the Premier League, it is a brave, yet problematic transition to make. Young players need guidance and leadership, and there can be few better mentors for them than Bolo Zenden. A club can have the finest coaches and training techniques known to man, but there cannot possibly be any more potent method of learning than witnessing quality and intelligent players who have played at the very top demonstrating how it is done up close and personal, and that is something our young players have the privilege of experiencing on a daily basis with Zenden an active member of the squad.
In his role as club captain, he also has the opportunity to impart his standards of professionalism and dedication upon the whole squad. Following the derby-day disaster at St James Park back in October, two solitary players refused the offer of a day off and took to the training ground alone – Jordan Henderson, and his captain. When the players were cashing in on some hefty bonuses later on in the season, it was Bolo Zenden who led a consort of his colleagues to propose some of it be spent wining and dining the entire club staff at Sedgefield Races.
Perhaps Steve Bruce has not used Boudewijn Zenden enough. The player himself has expressed some discontent with the amount of game time he has been receiving too, but it is that hunger and drive that is intrinsic to why he is so important to us. Without it, he'd be just another washed up has-been after a final cushy pay-day setting a poisonous example to the young players upon which the future of the club will be built. For that reason, it will not be a huge shock if Bolo opts to take his chances elsewhere this summer, but should that happen I believe it will be a massive loss to the club and leave a void that would prove next to impossible to fill. Zenden acknowledges that he has been made aware of just how important to the club he is considered to be, and perhaps that is the reason for him being used with such restraint by Bruce. Perhaps the idea is to use him sparingly, squeeze a few more years out of him as an active member of the squad, and retain his influence for as long as possible, hoping that it is enough to keep the player around. If so, I can understand the logic, but it makes our manager a considerably braver man than me.
If it transpires that our association with our diminutive Dutchman draws to an end over the coming months, I will be saddened to see him go but I am certain he will leave with the best wishes and respect of every one of us. To me, Zenden is one of those players you never really realise just how much they contribute until they are gone. A little and unassuming man with a potentially massive influence over the future of the club. Steve Bruce announced following the Bolton game that "Bolo knows exactly what I think of him. I would love to keep him". I hope it is enough.